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Some Elections Depend on Who Draws the Lines

For some candidates, the 2012 elections will be decided in court.

Dee Margo and Joseph Moody

For some candidates, the 2012 elections will be decided in court.

Dee Margo, an El Paso Republican, knocked off Joe Moody, a Democrat, in the 2010 general election, taking back a Republican House seat Moody had won two years earlier. Moody is back now, hoping the map drawn by federal judges in San Antonio is the one that prevails. If it does, it’s a Democratic district in a Democratic town. If the district looks like the one drawn by state lawmakers, it’s a swing district. In that situation two years ago, Margo won.

State Representative Ken Legler, Republican of Pasadena, will probably live or die, politically speaking, by what the courts do. His colleagues in the Legislature drew him a district where Republicans beat Democrats, on average, by 26 points in the last two statewide elections. That would make 2012 a nice year for a two-week tropical vacation. The map drawn by the judges would keep the cruise ship in port: Republicans on the statewide ballot lost the last two elections there by an average of 10.6 points.

The former railroad commissioner Michael Williams either has a district to run in (Legislature) or not (courts). Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, is either paired in the same district with Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, or not. She announced plans to retire while the court map was in play, and then filed for re-election when it became clear the legislative plan might survive.

There are stories like these all over the ballot.

Generally, Democrats like the court map. Republicans like the legislative map. But both maps favor the Republicans, and the difference is a matter of degree.

The court’s congressional map has two more Democratic districts than the Legislature’s map, if you go by average results. It turns two solid partisan districts — one Republican and one Democratic — into swing districts. Even so, 23 of the 36 districts, based on those recent election results, are firmly in Republican hands on the map the Republican lawyers are calling a Democratic plan.

The only significant difference on the Senate map is in Fort Worth, where Wendy Davis, a Democrat, is playing defense on turf that is either moderately Republican (the court map) or strongly Republican (the legislative map). The state House map has 49 Democratic districts and 6 swing districts — based on the last two elections — in the legislative version. The court’s version has 54 Democratic seats and 10 swing seats.

Maps aren’t everything. The current maps, for instance, allowed 99 Republicans to win election in November 2010 and shook the building hard enough to get two Democrats — Allan Ritter and Aaron Peña — to switch parties. But in November 2008, using those same maps, voters put only 76 Republicans in the Texas House. So votes still count, apparently.

But the maps mean a lot. When Republican legislators drew the new ones, they were trying to preserve their incumbencies. It’s difficult to do that while also honoring the protections for minorities under the Voting Rights Act.

In the last cycle, the endangered incumbents were white Democrats. Republicans were drawing the maps. Minority voters were protected, then as now. That squeeze claimed U.S. Reps. Max Sandlin, Jim Turner, Charlie Stenholm, Martin Frost, Chris Bell, Nick Lampson and, eventually, Chet Edwards. The only Anglo Democrats left in the Texas delegation are Gene Green, who remains popular with the minority voters who dominate his Houston district, and Lloyd Doggett of Austin, who lives in a city that the Republican state’s political mappers refer to as the blueberry in the tomato soup.

This year’s political border wars have had some unintended consequences. The maps are harder to draw, and now the courts are trying to revise them on deadline. Moving the deadline — they’ve postponed the March 6 primaries until April 3 — causes problems, too. Last week, Texas counties, which administer the elections, sent a brief to the federal judges saying the plans for a postponed April 3 primary were unworkable, and the judges told everyone to work that out by Wednesday.

However it goes, Republicans will probably have strong majorities in the congressional delegation, and in the state House and Senate. If all you care about are the overall numbers, this red state will have red delegations in all three spots.

But for particular areas of the state, and for individual candidates, the court’s choices amount to more than just a starting gun for the election.

Those choices are the election.

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